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Mr. Curry: I hope that I may assist my right hon. Friend. He mentioned the redundancy and transitional costs that will be especially important for Selby, given the size of the area which is being removed. As he will know, for 1996-97, Selby made an extremely low bid--of £100,000--compared with many other authorities. We met that in full. The 1996-97 bid did not include provision for redundancy and compensation payments, but we expect that that will be included in the mid-year bidding round and further allocations could be made at that stage. I shall bear in mind my right hon. Friend's remarks at that time.

Mr. Alison: My hon. Friend is very kind not to force me to wait in agony and expectation until he speaks later for that little expression of hope and encouragement. It is

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very much appreciated. I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to focus on the needs of Selby. There will be a problem if the extra demands have to be paid for purely by local council tax payers and not through the agency of some sort of redistributive mechanism.

Mr. Dobson: In the same spirit, and to save myhon. Friend the Member for North-West Durham(Ms Armstrong) making the point later, may I say that the right hon. Gentleman has made a good case? Selby is in unique circumstances and the help that the Minister mentioned would not breach any principles, or set any precedents for anywhere else. The Opposition would be happy to support any efforts that the Government, the council and the right hon. Gentleman can make to sort out the problem, because Selby has been battered twice rather than just once by the changes.

Mr. Alison: I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that helpful contribution. I know that he has some geographical and personal knowledge of the Selby district. I hope that I can end my speech on a note of constructive harmony in the expectation that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench will listen carefully to me and to the Opposition spokesman and ensure that everything possible is done. I can see other colleagues nodding in every part of the House. Perhaps we can have a general agreement that something special should be done for Selby and that my right hon. and hon. Friends will do their best to secure it.

6 pm

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison), who is a fellow Yorkshireman. I hope that the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras(Mr. Dobson) will prove helpful. When the right hon. Gentleman retires at the next election, we shall be looking for his successor to come from the side of the House that we will occupy--although I, too, shall have retired.

This is not the first time that I have participated in a debate on local government finance. I have not done so for the past two years, but I did so frequently before that. Today, I found the Secretary of State to be courteous, although he was rather cutting about the Liberal Democrats. He took a great deal of time and gave way frequently, but it was not until my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) intervened that he clearly and specifically accepted that local government spending this year is so inadequately supported by central funding that council tax will go up substantially.

Many experts believe that, on average, council tax increases throughout the country will exceed the rate of inflation by a factor of two and, if certain eventualities such as higher settlements, greater costs and more urgent crises assail local government, the burden will be even higher. Some key services will be threatened, as will some of the non-statutory activities normally undertaken by local government.

For example, the Government are supposed to be keen on combatting crime. In the past few months, they seem to have detected a slowing in the rate of increase in crime. In fact, it has much more than doubled since 1979. Many of the villains are not in prison because the rate of

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convictions has fallen in actual terms. Many local authorities, mine in particular, are keen to see measures to discourage crime, but there will not be any capacity to do that adequately.

I do not believe that the lot of police authorities is particularly pleasant today. The fire services, which have been put under great pressure, have been mentioned. The Minister might like to recall that the number of calls to which fire services had to respond during the drought months created serious problems for those authorities.

I am concerned about education. I welcomed the Chancellor's reference to education in the Budget--he announced that almost £800 million extra for education would be directed to local authorities--but many local authorities are already spending above the level on which the Chancellor's calculations were based. A further 83,000 children will enter our schools and they will have to be catered for from an increase that may well be more fictitious than real.

There is another problem. The Minister will be aware of it because he has visited my constituency on a number of occasions in the past year or two. We have enormously high unemployment. A vast proportion of our young people see no opportunity for employment and a great deal of effort is put into seeking to ensure that they stay on at school or enter further education--anything other than hanging about the streets. The number of young people who have stayed on beyond the normal school leaving age recently has presented serious problems for an education authority that seeks to be sensible and realistic. The Government might say that other authorities have been treated more severely, but I do not believe that we have been given the assistance or the resources necessary to save money.

The same argument applies in respect of old people. People are living longer, but going into care costs a great deal of money. It is sensible to give local authorities the capacity to sustain elderly people in their own homes because the alternative is more expensive. The number of people who reach 90 or even a century has increased appreciably in my area.

Not long ago, I wrote to a couple who I thought had been married the longest in my area--they were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary. I wrote to them because I know their son-in-law. I congratulated them and reminded the old man that I had seen him by a reservoir not long before. His daughter telephoned me to say that I have in my constituency a couple who have been married for six years longer--that fact did not get into our observant local newspaper.

People are living longer and they need the sustenance and care that can be provided by a local authority. They will not get it if local authorities remain docile and seek to keep council tax down to avoid offending their tax payers and the Government.

This will be a difficult year for local authorities. It has become increasingly difficult for local authorities to bear their burdens while the flagship of the Conservative party has been supported for the past eight years. Seven years ago, I gave the House a detailed comparison between my authority and Westminster. I reviewed the comparison the following year. If my authority had been treated in the same way as Westminster during the past seven years, none of my constituents would have had to pay any council tax, we would have been able to provide twice as

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many old people with free meals and several hundred more home helps every year and every person in the Rotherham metropolitan borough--man, woman and child--could have pocketed more than £1,250.

The argument advanced in support of the enormous assistance given to Westminster is that it is part of the capital city and has to sustain the responsibility of the centre in promoting national culture, art, music and so on. In fact, the vast majority of provincial local authorities spend a larger proportion of their budget on those purposes than does Westminster. I challenge the Minister to deny that. The average local authority provides a higher level of support for art, culture and music than does Westminster city council. The situation is so bad that the national lottery has to use my constituents' contributions to fund the extravagant schemes and to provide those central responsibilities that the Government assume Westminster bears.

If the authority was efficient, I would not mind so much. During a debate in the House a few years ago, I mentioned an old-age pensioner in my constituency who had not set foot in London since 1955. He received 14 parking tickets and a summons in Westminster for parking a car that had never been there. [Laughter.] Oh yes. It just so happened that the car with false number plates was discovered on the morning of my debate. The person involved was never prosecuted. The car was a large blue Rover. I do not have a blue car for obvious reasons and I suspect that the person involved may have been closer to the political sympathies of Conservative Members.

If my local authority had done anything like that, there would have been demonstrations such as those mentioned by the right hon. Member for Selby. There would have been protests about the incompetence of the council. Yet the Tory flagship must continue to sail. I hope that, after the next general election, we will see rather more intelligence and a greater sense of justice pervading decision making in the Department of the Environment.

Seven years ago, I argued that there was grossly inadequate weighting for the unemployment factor in the determination of central support. The Government decided that it was a good case and there has been some improvement since then. However, I still consider that there is grossly inadequate consideration of the factors of poverty and low pay.

If a community suffers from low earnings and the average household income is therefore extremely low, that has a serious effect. I take the view--and have done so for a long time--that that factor is not given sufficient weight. Any improvements that the Government may have made have been grossly inadequate. There is a strong case for an independent assessment of and arbitration on such factors in the determination of central grants. It is a serious argument. My authority and others in South Yorkshire, which contribute to the Dearne valley city grant scheme--over which the Minister has a watching brief--are areas of real poverty. Jobs have been destroyed and the wages of those in work have fallen in real terms. It is a grossly inadequate that that economic reality is not taken into account in the determination of grant. That must be dealt with immediately.

In 1979, Graham Page, the former Minister with responsibility for local government finance, described his task as flying around England in a helicopter dropping

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bags of money on town halls. That may have been an inefficient system, but it did not matter so much then because, in those days, the rates provided a much smaller share of local government income than does council tax now. [Interruption.] It is true.

Once Lady Thatcher decided that the burden had to be shifted from the taxpayer to the ratepayer, people became a great deal more sensitive to the problems. The Government then became a great deal more critical of local authorities that did not do exactly what they wanted. Local government must serve local needs. It should not depend on a Government who exercise excessive pressure through such measures as capping. Sometimes, local government knows best. Indeed, local government is often more careful in its stewardship of public money than the Government Departments that so often criticise it.

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